Poster king dreams up images to grab audiences
By Bruce Horovitz
The king of Hollywood film posters, Tony Seiniger, recently received a call from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the once-and-current box office king.
The star's request could toss an unexpected twist into the $250 million business of creating Hollywood's movie posters, and, perhaps, change the way some movie concepts are sold.
The hero of Terminator III had just read a movie script he liked, but couldn't quite grasp the film's essence. He asked Seiniger — who had done posters for two of his earlier films — for a favor: Create a poster for the yet-to-be-made movie to help Schwarzenegger visualize the film.
Seiniger obliged. The poster depicted bounty hunter Schwarzenegger wrestling for a gun on the beach with wiseguy Cedric the Entertainer. Schwarzenegger liked what he saw. Now, studio hotshots are eyeing that script, Joe's Last Chance, for production.
Of course, the purpose of movie posters is to sell movies to moviegoers, not to actors or studio executives. That's not changing soon.
But as he's done for three decades in the business, Seiniger is stretching the limits of his craft. Somebody has to. Despite a summer of supposed blockbusters and can't-miss sequels, ticket sales are off nearly 5% — and likely to fall short of last summer's record $3.15 billion. That has Hollywood executives turning to their ad agencies to pump up the volume. And the central image in a movie's hype is its poster.
"If you can make a great poster, you can make a great movie," says Seiniger, founder and creative force at Seiniger Advertising Group, where he has made posters and trailers for more than 1,500 films. Seiniger, 64, also is sole owner. After selling the shop to British ad giant WPP Group in 1989 for about $11 million, the savvy Seiniger bought it back for about $7 million when WPP hit financial woes four years later.
"I'm the last one of my era," says Seiniger, an engaging self-promoter who — like many of his Hollywood clients — has never been accused of being modest. Perhaps that's why Hollywood has been knocking on his door for posters for nearly 30 years. Think Jaws. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Think The Last Emperor. All won Best Picture Oscars. And all had posters created by Seiniger Advertising.
"Tony is the godfather of modern movie advertising," says Marc Shmuger, vice chairman at Universal Pictures.
Seiniger's Beverly Hills office sits within eyeshot of chic Rodeo Drive. But inside, it looks and feels more like a disjointed Hollywood film set. Posters hang here. And there. The back of the shop is littered with film paraphernalia.
[h2]The poster is the face of a movie[/h2]
Marketing movies ranks among the most high-pressure work in the ad world. Studios often have just days to sell their films — especially in the critical summer season.
And while movie trailers may lure many moviegoers into the cinema, it's the posters that instantly identify a flick. It's the posters whose familiar images appear on DVD and video cases, on soft-drink cups and other promotions, on merchandise and in ads. It's the posters that film buffs collect. And it's the posters that often leave the single most powerful impression.
"It's insane the way this business is done," he says. In fact, it's mostly done in a computer. Most of his staff of 30 sit not-so-quietly in front of their screens much of the day, creating and re-creating images. But only a tiny fraction of those images ultimately make the cut.
The Schwarzenegger poster was created with photo trickery. There was no daylong photo session with the stars. Seiniger clipped images of Schwarzenegger and Cedric from the Internet and plopped them digitally onto a computer screen. Presto: instant movie sales tool. And it cost Seiniger less than $5,000.
But creating real posters for big-budget blockbusters is complex — and costly.
One of this summer's most anticipated film's was The Hulk. While some critics have panned the Universal Pictures film as forgettable, the movie poster for The Hulk certainly isn't: an angry, green creature mostly hidden by his own enormous hand.
The Hulk opened strong at $62 million, only to plummet 70% in its second weekend. Seiniger insists he did his job. "All we're responsible for is the first Friday's business," he says. "After that it's all word of mouth."
Guess how many individual Hulk posters Seiniger and his agency crew created before helping Universal select that one. A couple dozen? Or, perhaps, 100? Maybe even 200?
Try 691. That's right, 691 individual posters that showed everything from the now-famous giant-green-hand poster to hundreds of other posters that showed the green behemoth in all his glory.
For Seiniger, the choice was a no-brainer.
"Steven Spielberg advised me years ago that you make it more intriguing by not showing too much," says Seiniger, whose agency spent a year creating The Hulk posters. "Let them pay to see the real thing."
What Seiniger was paid for The Hulk work: a cool $500,000.
The poster Seiniger is perhaps best known for is the one he created in 1974 for Jaws: a giant, sharp-toothed shark — its mouth wide open — approaching a lone female swimmer.
His agency spent a then-unheard-of six months developing the Jaws poster. "No matter what we did, it didn't look scary enough," says Seiniger. The sharks in test posters kept looking more like dolphins. Then, the idea hit him. "You had to actually go underneath the shark so you could see his teeth."
That poster — which he made the same year he opened his agency — was life changing. "It made my career," Seiniger says. "Suddenly, everyone wanted me."
They still do.
"Seiniger and crew are the New York Yankees of the profession," says Richard Kahn, past president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. "He's always the front-runner that people are trying to knock from the top."
For years, Seiniger's agency created as many film trailers as movie posters. But recently, Seiniger has opted to do mostly posters. "The trailer business has been dumbed down by national research polls," he says. There's lots more room for creativity, and less studio interference, in film posters.
[h2]Stars can be difficult[/h2]
It's not always easy working with celebrities. For the poster Seiniger made for Patriot Games, Harrison Ford refused to pose with a gun, so, Seiniger improvised. He sent a photographer to the film set who took pictures of the live action — and luckily came away with a poster-worthy photo.
Many movie buffs are familiar with the poster for Moonstruck— featuring star Cher happily kicking her leg up in the air, the image of the full moon glowing behind her. Well, it didn't come easy. Seiniger said Cher wasn't at all comfortable kicking. Seiniger had his then-3-year-old daughter demonstrate how a kid effortlessly kicks her legs. Cher watched her — then nailed it.
Seiniger has done posters and movie trailers for many of Kevin Costner's films, including Field of Dreams, Tin Cup and The Bodyguard. And, yes, for one of Costner's biggest disappointments, Waterworld.
But Costner rarely wants to show his full face in movie posters. In the Wyatt Earp poster, for example, you have to look closely to tell it's him. In The Bodyguard poster, co-star Whitney Houston's face is visible, but Costner's is almost indefinable.
That can drive studio executives bonkers. "Studios pay a lot of money for top actors," says Seiniger. "They want to see the face."
[h2]Director got the poster's point[/h2]
Seiniger filmed special images for a trailer for Costner's film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. When director Kevin Reynolds saw it, he liked the imagery so much that he replicated it for the movie. The scene depicts an arrow's point of view as it flies toward a tree, then splits another arrow.
There are the posters that come out of desperation.
The Private Benjamin poster features star Goldie Hawn in an unlikely grim and gray face. Seiniger found a stark, black-and-white negative shot on the movie set with a 35-millimeter camera and hand-dyed it with a cotton swab. For the poster for the original Shaft, Seiniger couldn't get hold of a decent photo of star Richard Roundtree with gun in hand. He improvised and took a clip from the film, then made the blurry action look intentional.
Then, there are the posters that never were.
Spielberg tapped Seiniger to create one for Schindler's List. It featured a dramatic photo of Schindler holding a little girl in his arms. But studio executives rejected it because they didn't want Schindler to be construed as a hero. They ultimately hired another agency to create a poster to reflect the film's title — a simple listing of names.
After putting so many celebrities in the spotlight, Seiniger was placed in it himself in 1999, when a former executive assistant filed a sexual harassment and discrimination civil lawsuit against him. Seiniger says his attorney has advised him not to discuss the case, which was settled out of court.
But there's no talk of retirement. "I'll probably die at my desk," Seiniger says. "They'll have to grind me up and turn me into movie posters."
The poster that he says best represents his life: Field of Dreams. In it, Costner stands in a cornfield with home plate at his back and puffy clouds floating above. "Your field of dreams can be whatever you want it to be," Seiniger says.
But Seiniger's personal field of dreams doesn't come with a grassy outfield and a dusty home plate.
It comes with a simple, visual idea that stands as his legacy in front of movie theaters across in America:
If he builds it, they will come.
[h2]About Tony Seiniger [/h2]
Education: Bachelor of arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design in 1962.
First ad assignment: Producing a television commercial for producer/director Richard Brooks' 1966 film The Professionals when he was 27.
First poster: In 1969, for John and Mary, starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
Favorite actor to work with: Kevin Costner.
Favorite director to work with: Steven Spielberg.
Most demanding director to work with: Oliver Stone.
Favorite film poster (created by someone else): Rosemary's Baby.
Career: Established his first ad agency in New York in 1967. Moved to California as creative director for in-house ad division at MGM in 1970. Formed Seiniger Advertising in 1973, specializing in the film, television, sports and leisure industries.
Expansion: Opened NYC office in 2001.
Hobby: Amateur vintage race car driver.
Workload: During a typical box office year, Seiniger's agency works on 50 to 60 major movie advertising campaigns.
New directions: Also does work for cable TV clients, including HBO, TNT and TBS.
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Last read on 3/7/2014 2:42:46 PM